Constitutional crisis: The Syria peace talks that are going nowhere

Assad poster [Getty]
7 min read
06 December, 2021

On 17 October, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Otto Pedersen, announced a breakthrough in constitutional talks between the opposition and regime negotiating teams in Geneva.

The Syrian Constitutional Committee peace process had seen two years of bitter deadlocks and disappointments, notably after walk-backs and stalling from the regime side. When the sixth round of talks opened in October, after a delay of one year, few believed the outcome would be any different.

To the surprise of observers, Pedersen revealed that the drafting committee - made up of 45 members from the Syrian regime, opposition, and civil society - had agreed to "prepare and start drafting constitutional reform".

It appeared that the long-hoped-for diplomatic breakthrough had arrived and perhaps the first step toward ending the decade-long war in Syria, one which has killed over 500,000 people, had been taken.

"The Syrian Constitutional Committee peace process had seen two years of bitter deadlocks and disappointments, notably after walk-backs and stalling from the regime side"

'Big disappointment'

Sadly, it didn't. Five days later, the sullen Norwegian diplomat informed the press that the talks were exhausted and there was no date for new negotiations.

Pederson described the session as a "big disappointment" and appeared to direct blame at the Syrian regime side.

The UN-facilitated Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019 and is divided between a Large Body consisting of 150 people and the Small Body of 45, with 30 percent of delegates being women.

Numbers in the committees are divided equally between members representing civil society (known as the middle third), the Syrian government, and the Syrian Negotiations Commission, or opposition.

The UN says the process is "Syrian owned, Syrian-led", without the involvement of major powers and including Syrians from all sectors of society with two co-chairs – one from the regime, one from the opposition – overseeing the meetings.

The Small Body is tasked with drafting up a new charter, eventually paving the way for free and fair elections in Syria - a long-standing demand of the opposition.

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Violent outcomes

The failure of the talks in Geneva coincided with renewed violence in Syria. On 20 October, a bombing - claimed by an obscure rebel group - destroyed an army bus in Damascus killing 14 people. On the same day, regime shelling of the Idlib town of Ariha killed 14 people, including four children.

It was a clear sign of the vulnerability of the ceasefire and the potential for a return to the darkest moments of the war when around 100 Syrians were dying every day.

For members of the opposition committee, it also highlighted just how much hinged on the process and the lives that could be lost when negotiations fail.

"We always go into these discussions with the same attitude and sense of responsibility and urgency and were prepared to dive into a discussion about the constitution," Dima Moussa, an opposition member of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, told The New Arab.

"We were cautiously hopeful that the process would finally take off and yield some results but cannot say that we were surprised when the regime’s delegation resorted to the same old antics."

Over 500,000 people have been killed in Syria's war, with the Assad regime and allied militias responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. [Getty]

For members of the opposition team who have fought hard to keep the track alive, last month was another blow and yet another example of the regime attempting to paralyse the process.

"The continued obstruction to moving forward with the constitutional process is a clear indication of the regime still not being serious about the process as a whole," said Moussa.

"The only way to reconcile these issues is to get the entire political process underway, specifically negotiations relating to the transitional governing body... when that is underway the constitutional process will automatically proceed in a meaningful manner and at a speed that is commensurate with the urgency of the situation."

Gridlocks often lead to catastrophic episodes of violence in Syria. When the second session of the talks collapsed in late 2019, after the regime put forward a series of "irrelevant" proposals frustrating the opposition delegation, a Russian-backed offensive was launched which saw the regime clawing back territories in southern Idlib.

Other UN and Arab League-brokered talks during the war have been dismissed by the regime and led to renewed fighting on the ground.

"It is unfortunate that these delays in the process - the political process as a whole and not just the constitutional process - get translated on the ground to an extension of the catastrophic living conditions for Syrians in all parts of Syria," Moussa added.

"Bashar Al-Assad is basically playing games… he is not interested in the constitutional committee because he knows that genuine reform will push him out of office"


The idea that the Syrian regime would sign up to a process that could ultimately lead to its own demise has puzzled some outsiders, particularly with Assad's insistence that the only solution to the war is a military one.

The opposition insists that the regime's motive for participating in the Syrian Constitutional Committee is to stall yet another international peace effort, as well as to bide time for another major assault on opposition territories.

Karam Shaar, Research Director of the Operations and Policy Center, is unsurprised by the recent failure, seeing it as part of Assad’s overall strategy to cling onto power.

"Bashar Al-Assad is basically playing games… he is not interested in the constitutional committee because he knows that genuine reform will push him out of office. In a country where there is a separation of powers, where you can't go dissolve parliament at will, then Bashar Al-Assad cannot rule forever and that is not acceptable for him," he said.

"The man is masterful when it comes to politics. For example, when he was forced to give concessions on chemical weapons, he handed over the stockpiles and later used chemical weapons time and again. When initially protesters in 2011 asked for an end to emergency laws, he said 'yep that's fine we can remove those'. He did, then arbitrary arrests went through the roof."

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The Syrian constitutional process was the result of the UN-backed Geneva political track and the more military-focused Astana Process, led by the key powerbrokers in Syria - Turkey, Iran, and Russia.

Assad signed up to the Syrian Constitution Committee but viewed the UN effort as lacking the teeth to bring about real change, unlike Astana, which involved players who could influence events on the ground in Syria, Shaar said.

"The Syrian regime was more interested in resolving things forcefully, so the Astana talks gained prominence at the expense of the Constitutional Committee. I think initially Russia was not interested in putting pressure on the regime for the first months, and maybe year, until they got the opposition to lower their expectations," Shaar said.

Moderating demands

Moscow’s achievements in forcing the opposition to moderate its demands is another example of the complicated relations between Russia and the Syrian regime.

"More recently - and especially after the latest rounds - the rhetoric from Russia is quite clear. They are disappointed with the position of the Syrian regime and how it is actually stalling the talks," he explained.

"I think the Russians now believe that the time is right for a political settlement in Syria. The opposition is desperate enough to accept a reasonable constitution and the Syrian regime is just wasting time. They can’t force Assad to do something he doesn't want… Bashar Al-Assad is quite a snake when it comes to political compromises."

With stalemates in the talks and the regime unwilling to budge to Russian demands, Shaar said that only radical action from members of the opposition and NGO committees can save the process.

"Not a single [member] thought it was a good idea to withdraw from the Constitutional Committee and this is at odds with what the public want. Most of the public believe that [the process] is a waste of time, it’s time to withdraw, and yet not a single member actually did," he said.

"If you want to put pressure on the Syrian regime, if you want the international community [to] rush to save the constitutional committee, if you want Russia to take it more seriously, then it would be very, very useful if you have people withdrawing from the constitutional committee. Four or five people, that's it."

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin